By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday used his final public appearance before reporting to prison to defend his political actions and express confidence that his conviction on federal corruption charges will ultimately be overturned.
Blagojevich called his looming 14-year prison sentence, which starts on Thursday, a "dark and hard journey," but said he would draw strength from his belief that he had "helped real, ordinary people" during his years in office.
"We still have faith in the future," Blagojevich told the crowd of about 300 people who gathered outside his home on Chicago's north side to hear his final statement, which was timed precisely to coincide with 5 p.m. local time news shows.
"We are appealing the case," Blagojevich said with his tearful wife Patti at his side. "We have great trust and faith in the appeal and while my faith in things has sometimes been challenged, I still believe this is America, this is a country that is governed by the rule of law," he said.
Blagojevich was arrested in his north side home by FBI on the morning of December 9, 2008 on political corruption charges, including an allegation that he conspired to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama in return for political favors and donations.
Three years and two trials later, Blagojevich was convicted of political corruption and U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel sentenced the two-term governor and father of two daughters to 14 years in prison for corruption.
Throughout the trials, Blagojevich refused to apologize for his actions, even launching a publicity campaign on national talk shows to declare his innocence. Only at his sentencing in December 2011 did he finally apologize but Zagel said it was too late.
Assigned prisoner number 40892-424, Blagojevich, 55, is scheduled to surrender on Thursday and will be at a prison in Colorado.
The imprisonment of Blagojevich, a Democrat, means the last two Illinois governors will be behind bars, and he becomes the fourth governor in the state to be convicted of crimes since the 1960s. His Republican predecessor George Ryan is also in prison.
Dozens more underlings have been convicted in federal corruption investigations. One of Blagojevich's aides, Christopher Kelly, committed suicide in 2009 before going to prison, saying that prosecutors had pressed him to cooperate in the case against his former boss.
Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen has called the corrupt practices in Illinois "a hideous bog" that never seemed to dry up.
When Blagojevich and a top aide were charged, local U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said authorities had halted a potential crime spree that would have made Illinois native Abraham Lincoln "roll over in his grave."
At the end of his first trial in August 2009, a single juror held out and refused to convict Blagojevich on the bulk of the counts, and a mistrial was declared on all but one count of lying to investigators.
At his second trial, with his campaign fund exhausted and his eloquent defense lawyer Sam Adam, Jr., declining to continue on the case, Blagojevich was found guilty of 17 of 20 counts by the jury of 11 women and one man.
They acquitted him of a single bribery count and deadlocked on two other counts, one related to a school grant sought by then-U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel, later Obama's chief of staff and now Chicago's mayor.
The first Democrat elected Illinois governor in 30 years, Blagojevich eventually alienated Illinois lawmakers, passing out largesse while the state's finances suffered.
His popularity sank to unprecedented lows during his second term, and Blagojevich was heard on the FBI tape-recordings profanely pushing aides to trade the Senate seat for a well-paid position for him because he despised being governor.
At one point on the tapes Blagojevich cursed Obama for taking away his own chance at higher office, showing the now-disgraced Blagojevich once had loftier aspirations.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune; Desking by Cynthia Osterman)